Standing with Our Toes Over the Edge

What we humans optimistically call civilization these days is only the most recent of many civilizations that have come and gone, rising to shine briefly, then slowly decline, fail and disappear into the basement storage room of history. Our turn is coming, perhaps sooner than anyone expects.

Not long after I escaped from my obligatory military service in the 1970s, I studied Earth Science at a small “Normal” school (what we now call a teacher’s college) in Western Nebraska. My major professor, Dr. Larry Agenbroad, was a charismatic figure in the classroom and the field, much the favorite of the female contingent of our academic cohort. And he was wise in the ways of Earth and Mankind. Alas, he is no longer alive to pass on his knowledge.

In classes in geomorphology he taught us some very practical geological wisdom, such as don’t build your house in a flood plain or on the slope of an “extinct” volcano.

He also taught us that modern industrial agriculture had been developed during a geologic period of unusually stable, warm and wet weather, called the Holocene, and that one of these days conditions would change and we would be unable to grow enough food to feed an exponentially expanding human population.

In a petroleum geology class, he taught us about, as you might guess, petroleum, the sticky remains of ancient sunlight, turned into a concentrated energy source by time, pressure, temperature and Standard Oil. He mentioned in passing that this resource is finite, that when it is gone there will be no replacement, and we had better be thinking of making it last as long as possible if want to keep on the current path of civilization.

Dr. Agenbroad’s vision has come back to haunt us all.

Our civilization has two great challenges before it right now, challenges that have no solutions, that humans cannot forestall, that are as  inevitable as sunrise and sunset:  Peak Oil and Climate Change.

Peak Oil is the point at which annual oil consumption surpasses the annual amount of oil we discover in new oil fields. This point has passed globally. Climate Change is the slow change of global climate conditions through the phases of glacial and interglacial periods that the world has experienced for the past 2.6 million years.

The “oil crisis” of the early 1970s brought Peak Oil to public attention. There’s nothing like sitting in a long line of cars at a gas station to make you realize oil is a finite resource. At about the same time, meteorologists noticed that global temperatures were declining and they began talking about the dangers of global climate variation.

These two observations got some people to start thinking about the future of civilization. Unfortunately, those doing the thinking were an integral part of the military-industrial complex, and the result was the oil wars of Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, attempts to consolidate control of the last large untapped oil reserves in the world.

This new direction in United States foreign policy was hatched in George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force, officially called the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG) of 2001. In over 10 months of secret meetings, government officials met with petroleum, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electricity industry representatives and lobbyists to decide how to conduct the future energy polices of the United States government.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank, who up to then had pretty much held a stranglehold on the global economy, suddenly realized that if world petroleum supplies ran short, the Global Economy was going into the toilet in a big way. The result was the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), created to give policy advice to world governments on how to deal with human caused climate change (aka Global Warming).

That advice was, and is, rich countries give lots of money to poor countries, as guilt payment for the climate change the rich countries have caused, to bring poor countries into the Global Economy before it collapses under the weight of its own impossibility.

All of these national and international shenanigans were a last ditch attempt to control the uncontrollable, to solve the problems for which there are no solutions, and to try to avoid those unavoidable realities of Peak Oil and Climate Change.

As Albert Einstein noted in the 1940s:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Peak Oil is the result of building a high energy, high consumption civilization on a finite resource, with insufficient resources to continue when the finite source runs out. It’s as if I won a lottery and bought a mansion that requires more monthly expenses to maintain than I make in my regular salary. Once the lottery winnings are spent, I don’t have enough money to pay the regular expenses, and the house is foreclosed.

The IPCC is an attempt to find a technological fix for climate change, to “stop” global warming” so our burgeoning population and it’s constantly growing economy can continue indefinitely.

But climate change is not the problem. Climate change has continued for millennia, long before humans came on the scene. The problem is that humans have built a civilization based on the assumption of a static climate, that will continue into the future indefinitely, as it has for the past 100 years.

A simple geology class would disabuse even a freshman college student of that myth.

The twin challenges humans face today, Peak Oil and Climate Change, we ourselves created by way of our highly technocratic civilization. Our energy intensive technology is the problem, not the solution. Further technology cannot “solve” these problems, they can only make them worse.

When you’re standing on the precipice with your toes dangling out over the edge, you can do one of two things: you can take a step backwards, or, if you don’t like moving backwards, you can turn around and take a step forward.

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